Naked Politics Blogger
Theresa May has said she’s a feminist; she even wore the t-shirt. Such slogan t-shirts (‘this is what a feminist looks like’) have since been unearthed as not so feminist after all following the revelation that they were manufactured in sweatshops. And this seems perfectly in line with May’s feminism. After all, she may support a greater presence of women in politics, but her part in government cuts to social security and tax credits will hit women twice as hard as men.
May’s most popularised and celebrated feminist stance is that there needs to be more women in politics. She has this in common with BBC’s Woman’s Hour whose focus seems to be women in politics rather than women and politics, having infamously placed Margaret Thatcher on their 2016 Woman’s Hour Power List. Just as Woman’s Hour has been considered too middle class and retrograde, so too has May’s brand of feminism seemed far removed from the everyday woman.
This is what makes May’s decision not to appear on Woman’s Hour seem so odd. They’re essentially singing from the same ‘feminist’ hymn sheet. Woman’s Hour, like most journalistic formats, tries to challenge its guests, but surely a show that espouses a liberal feminist viewpoint and that has failed to tackle issues of race and class is a ‘safe space’ for May’s brand of feminism?
May’s failure to appear on the show was more than a blunder as it has serious repercussions for arguments for a politics of presence. Both Jeremy Corbyn and Tim Farron were interviewed on the show. While Corbyn was left flustered over his figures, he still made a case for a manifesto that cared about women. May was reportedly ‘too busy’ to appear on Woman’s Hour and has been criticised for avoiding the public. Corbyn meanwhile, seems to have transformed into some kind of superhero, managing to balance appearing on national TV, going to local rallies, and speaking with grime artists. As the public warm to Corbyn, May appears increasingly robotic and distant. Indeed, Corbyn’s hiccups are often forgiven largely because of his visibility. Even Tim Farron, who received heavy criticism following his refusal to say whether or not gay sex was a sin, has picked up support for his putdown, ‘She can’t be bothered. So why should you?’
May’s election campaign message of ‘strong and stable’ has been widely mocked by the public. Not only has it reinforced gendered tropes that women must adhere to a masculine ideal of ‘strength’ to be taken seriously, it has also left her little room to make mistakes. She said Corbyn tries too hard to get on TV, but aren’t media appearances part and parcel of the modern politician? Apparently not for May, who chooses to spend time on the ‘real’ issues. This seems at odds with her 2015 appearance on BBC’s Desert Island Discs; a show hardly lauded for its contribution to political debate.
It also seems at odds with the whole narrative of election campaigning. Celebrity has been part of British politics ever since Blair’s embrace of Britpop 20 years ago. While David Cameron may have been mocked for saying he liked The Smiths, few would suggest that a refusal to engage with popular culture is the way to the British electorate’s hearts. One only needs to look at Donald Trump’s election to see that celebrity prowess really can win votes.
May’s fear of mistakes risks further alienating herself from the very demographic she’s trying to attract. Corbyn, far from having a ‘woman problem’, was most popular among women in the Labour Party leadership race winning 64% of the female vote. What’s to say he won’t win round undecided female voters too?
Theresa May’s failure to engage with Woman’s Hour reinforces the question, do women really know what women want, and do women necessarily act for other women? Such debate is not new and has roots in the ethics of care and the idea that women are more likely to care about matters such as welfare provision. While May has campaigned against domestic violence and for the greater political presence of women, dealing with the effects of austerity politics (which disproportionately affects women) is glossed over. It is a socialist-leaning manifesto that can tackle austerity politics. Feminist political theorists have suggested that while women should be present in politics; but it is reductive to say that women will necessarily act for women. Ultimately, ‘women’s bodies must not be confused with feminist minds.’